“ Take the sum total of the whole congregation of Israel…every male by
their head count” (Bamidbar, 1:2).
The Hebrew refers to 'golgulotam' literally their skulls and to
'si'ooh' literally to behead as we see in the case of Pharaoh’s chief baker or
aggrandize as in the case of his cupbearer. So that the counting was to be
done only in reference to their minds sited in their skulls and not to
include the body and nefesh; Onkelus translates ‘rosh’ as thought. Now we
read at Matan Torah, “And if you hearken well unto Me and observe My
covenant” (Shmot 19:5), the listening refers to the study and the learning
while the observing refers to the carrying out of the actions commanded.
In every mitzvah there is a revealed and obvious element, the actions
connected to that mitzvah. Then there is also a hidden element that is the
wisdom and the emotion underlying the mitzvah. Of itself the action is
like a body without a soul, whereas of themselves emotion and wisdom are
like a soul without a body, unborn, ineffective and unrealistic. By
combining both action [this world] and the wisdom and emotion [world to
come] one merits both worlds.
“He [Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah] used to say: One whose wisdom exceeds his
deeds is like a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few [and
weak]. The wind comes and uproots it and overturns it upon its top. But
one whose deeds are greater than his wisdom is like a tree whose roots are
many [and deep] but whose branches are few. Even if all the winds of the
world come and blow upon it, they cannot even move it from its place. ”
(Avot, chapter 3, mishnah 22).
Now we learn in many of our sefarim that the importance and value of
heavenly matters are in relation to material and mundane things as are
roots to branches. Accordingly, one whose actions are all only for the
sake of heaven is compared to a tree with many roots, so that not all the
winds [evil thoughts and strange ideas] cannot entrap him in their net nor
move him from his purpose. A person, however, whose wisdom is greater than
his deeds, that is, they are not done solely for the sake of heaven but
there are other considerations, has turned secondary values into primary
values and vice versa. So the Tanna of the mishnah compares him to a tree
with many branches but few roots. Furthermore, we should note that in both
cases the reference is to the blowing of the wind; that is to say that in
the absence of any wind [strange and evil thoughts] both are in no danger.
It is only the presence of these winds that the one can be turned topsy-
turvy while he whose deeds are many [for the sake of heaven] cannot be
It should be remembered that the mishnah is not talking about people who
have rejected Torah and Mitzvot. Judaism does not refer to dead people or
to actions, few or many, that are evil, in which case they have nothing;
as the Ramban points out, they are simply accursed and will not have any
existence. On the contrary the mishnah is discussing those who observe all
of the mitzvoth, but consider the perfection of their souls the paramount
purpose of that observance. So that they are doing no wrong, however, they
are affected by any wind that blows and any strange and incorrect thoughts
that may come their way; therefore, harmful forces can confuse his
thoughts and deeds till they become his accusers instead of merits.
Whereas, when all ones actions are done only for the sake of heaven, then
external and strange thoughts are not allowed to criticise. The Maggid of
Mezeritch, the Baal Shem Tov’s successor taught that even in prayer, one
should not that G-d should remove his troubles or pains but rather one
should pray for the anguish of the Shechinah.
So it behooves every person to see that all ones actions should only be to
serve heaven, and then no wind of evil and strange thoughts can move us;
our actions resemble the deepest roots. However, if these same actions,
Torah and Mitzvot have any other reason such as the perfection of the
s9oul, then they are not for the sake of heaven, rather for our own sakes.
Then, as long as there is no wind, there is no danger. However, the
slightest wind of strange and unsuitable thoughts can turn us spiritually
upside down. There is, even in such cases, still hope. Perhaps, in the
course of time, many strong and deep roots will grow; “Actions done not
for the sake [of heaven], we can come to doing them lishmah” (Pesachim,
52). [ In contrast, the Admor of Kotsk is quoted, “ What is not done
lishmah, remains ‘lo’lishmah’].
When Israel lost the great level of holiness that they had had at Matan
Torah, their actions no longer were for the sake of heaven. Now that they
acted for reasons and purposes of their own souls and not solely for
Hashem, they substituted marginality for the crucial and intrinsic. So
false and strange winds could confuse and mislead them, till they saw only
darkness and turmoil that led them to errors, and caused them to make the
Golden Calf. Then there remained of na’aseh ve nishmah only nishmah as
they had no intention of accepting idolatry or had changed their concepts,
rather there were only mistaken actions. Since with nishmah only it is
impossible to exist, that hearing brought them back to include
na’aseh; ‘lo lismah’ brought them ‘lishmah’.
Now we understand the midrash (Devarim 1) which taught that if thei
wisdom skulls- merant that their actions were only for the sake of heaven
then ‘saheu et rosh’ meant to raise them up, but if not then it meant